HALF OF the articles written about travel are about traveling with kids, but all of these articles are written by adults. The purpose of this article is to give parent some pointers for traveling with kids, but this time -- by a kid.
I am 14 years old. My parents are both journalists, and travel frequently. Since I accompany them on many of these trips, I have traveled all over the world. Besides my extensive travel within the United States, I have been to Greece, Israel, Egypt and Cyprus, to give a small sampling. From my experience, I hope to explain the best ways to make a trip fun for your kids -- and you.
The key to traveling with kids can be summed up very simply: DON'T OVERDO IT. This is especially true when the main purpose of your trip is sightseeing. It is important to remember that most kids tire more easily and have a shorter attention span than most adults. Also, when visiting ruins or museums, remember it's up to you to provide the historical perspective and background.
When my family and I were traveling in Egypt, I couldn't fathom the awe people had of the pyramids. They were impressive structures, of course, but I had no concept of the history that surrounded them. However, it is vital to remember that your kid is on vacation just as you are, and a history lesson is the last thing we need. I stood in the blazing heat of Morocco's streets for 45 minutes hearing about the Grand Palace. All that is needed is a brief explanation of why the site is important. It is also a good idea before the trip to provide your kid with books to read that pertain to the area you are visiting.
When you consider traveling with a kid, keep transportation in mind: What seems like a good idea to adults may be expecting a lot from a child. Planes are fine, as are trains (inside the United States). Cars are most common, however, particularly in foreign countries, for traveling within an area. BE CAREFUL -- long car rides are the quickest, easiest way I know to throughly ruin a trip. On a trip from South Carolina back to D.C., my parents decided to take the nine hours in one day. I was carsick twice, had three major arguments with my parents, and nearly strangled my sister half a dozen times. Try to plan your trip so that long car rides are unnecessary. If they are totally unavoidable, try to break them up with short breaks for lunch, exercise or sightseeing. Playing games such as "Ghosts," "Twenty Questions" and spotting license plates are good, and if your children are younger, tell stories or play alphabet games. Playing cards are usually a good idea, and a tape deck or a radio is a wise investment, too.
In terms of places to stay when traveling with your kid, if you have two or more kids, and can afford it, it's smart to let them have their own room. It's more comfortable for both of you, and it gives kids a sense of privacy and independence. Also, if you are traveling in a national park or similar place, it's fun to stay in a cabin instead of a motel. It's something different, especially if you've been traveling in motels, and it's a lot more fun for kids to be able to wander around in the woods. Likewise, if you are staying at the beach kids usually prefer beach houses to condos. And you can cook outside.
When you are planning things to do with your kids on a trip, remember, not everything needs to be a "cultural experience." In Egypt we would go sightseeing in the morning and come back for a swim in the afternoon. And try to do things that would be fun for your kids regardless of where you are. In Italy we went to the circus. Don't hesitate to do things that you could do at home. Going to a ball game in a strange city is a lot of fun. Even if there's a theme to your trip, it's very easy to go overboard. When we rented a cabin in Yellowstone National Park, my parents went on a "back to nature" kick. Not that I didn't love fishing and barbecuing outside, but out of 10 nights I didn't think it was too much to ask for one Big Mac.
Another thing you should keep in mind when thinking of things to do is that kids like to be given a choice. Think of three or four activities, and let your kid choose. Or, if your kids are older, let them read through the guidebook to choose things to do. Just letting kids go off by themselves in a museum is a much-appreciated freedom. Let your kids choose where to eat occasionally. Or, if they prefer, let them stay at the hotel and go swimming. Kids need a break and a chance to be alone just like you do. If you are traveling with one kid only, it will be more difficult to grant some of these liberties, but they are still welcome.
Many kids in their early teens are learning second languages. Maybe you could take that into consideration when planning a vacation.
Parents often shop a lot when they are traveling, and kids get bored really fast. If you give your kid some pocket money at bazaars or markets, it will make shopping more fun for both of you.
In terms of eating, encourage your kid to try new places and foods. In Greece, I became an octopus freak, but I never would have known I liked it unless I had tried it. However, if your kid really doesn't want to eat something, don't force it. Let them order what they want. If you're experimenting, let your kid try some of yours. If your kid wants to try something new, don't discourage it.
When you're packing for a vacation, have your kid pack a bag of things to do during plane or car rides or quiet moments. My taste runs to books, but playing cards, magic markers and paper, pocket versions of games like "Mastermind," "Othello," magnetic checkers, etc., electronic games, and toys and stuffed animals for younger kids are all great. When I was younger I used to bring three or four matchbox cars on trips: Any favorite toy or doll works well for little kids, to see something familiar in a strange place comforts them. Game books such as crossword puzzles and "Mad Libs" are fun too. Also remember it's particularly important for younger kids to have control over their clothes and suitcase. Try to suggest what to pack, but give the kid a choice.
The best way to involve your kid in pre-trip planning is to let them read the guidebook and information provided by your travel agent. As I said before, try to avoid long car rides. The best time span for a trip is about a week to 10 days. Two weeks is pushing it. Let your kid have a say in deciding the sites and towns you visit. When we were planning a trip to Mexico, my father gave me photocopies of magazine articles about five Mexican towns and asked me to pick two. Of course my opinion was not the only one considered, but at least I had input.
Kids don't always have to be a drag on trips. In fact, they can be beneficial. When my family and I were living in Greece, we had decided to see as much of Europe as possible while we were so close. So one Christmas when I was 6 years old, we set off for Italy. We drove from Athens to the coastal city of Patras, with plans to take a ferry across the Ionian Sea and arrive in Brindisi, Italy. At the ship we joined the line of people with cars waiting to board the ferry. When it was finally our turn, we were already a little behind schedule. But our troubles had just begun.
Our Fiat was owned by the newspaper my father works for, but we had never received the right registration for a foreign correspondent's car to allow it to travel abroad. So the petty bureaucrat at the entrance point began to hassle us over not having the proper papers. My parents began to argue with him in their halting Greek; and, as the argument grew heated, the official became increasingly rude. As my mother started screaming, I climbed out of my vantage point in the car, ran to my mother and started crying. (Give me a break, I was 6). My mother accused the man of having made a little kid cry, and he threw up his hands and let us get on board just as the ship's horn sounded and I was told that I had cried just at the right time. When we reached Brindisi, my father realized we might have trouble there too. I said (I was 6), "How will I know when to cry?"
So kids can be useful and fun on a trip. Consideration of your kids and their wishes is the best way to make a vacation with your kids work for both of you. Below I've provided a list of do's and don'ts that I hope will prove useful.
Lee Roberts enjoys The Who, John Irving, "Doonesbury," Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Billy Joel and blonds. He is in the ninth grade at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda.